In celebration of Mamba Week, Stadium Goods is taking a look back at the career of the legendary Kobe Bryant.
Spanning three decades, Bryant’s remarkable journey through the NBA can be broken down into three distinct eras: his rookie season, peak of his powers prime, and twilight years. Earlier this week, we reviewed Kobe’s introductory season in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers. Now it’s time to transition through Bryant’s championship triumphs, record-breaking scoring accomplishment, and leadership skills as part of the Men’s US Olympics Basketball team. Lace up your Nike Hyperdunks and join us as we travel back in time to the prime of Kobe Bryant’s storied NBA career.
There was plenty of optimism surrounding Kobe Bryant in 1999 and 2000. After airballing the Lakers out of the NBA Playoffs in the Spring of 1997, Bryant bounced back to be voted as an All-Star Game starter at just 19 years old in 1998. Having liked what they saw from Bryant’s epic toe-to-toe gamesmanship against Michael Jordan in the All-Star Game, the Lakers traded proven guard Eddie Jones in the Summer of 1999. The move freed up the shooting guard spot in their starting lineup for Bryant. He upped his scoring output to nearly 20 points per game as a full-time starter in ‘98-99. The Lakers were poised for greatness with both Bryant and his larger-than-life running mate Shaquille O’Neal entering their primes in 2000. For Bryant, that’s where things started falling into place for his legendary career that you know today.
Los Angeles Lakers Three-Peat NBA Championships
Between 2000 and 2002, the Los Angeles Lakers, headed by Kobe, Shaq, and head coach Phil Jackson, won three consecutive NBA Championships. Now the face of a new generation of NBA talent following Michael Jordan’s departure from the game, the Shaq and Kobe tandem was as unstoppable of an inside-outside presence as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were in the 1980s. As the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and New Jersey Nets found out during three consecutive NBA Finals, it was utterly impossible to double-team either of the two superstars in fear of leaving the other open. Speaking of the 76ers, the Lakers’ overtime loss to Allen Iverson and company during Game 1 of the ‘01 NBA Finals stood in the way of the Lakers becoming the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in the playoffs.
There were no television cameras filming when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game against the New York Knicks in 1962. The only evidence that suggests Wilt accomplished such a feat, aside from first-hand accounts of the game and newspaper clippings, is a black-and-white photograph of Wilt holding a piece of paper with “100” scribbled on it. Thankfully, we do have plenty of video evidence from the night that Kobe toyed with the Toronto Raptors to the tune of 81 points. On January 22, 2006, Bryant became just the second player in NBA history to amass 80+ points in a single game. For whatever reason, the Lakers needed Bryant’s assortment of fadeaways, dunks, and deadeye shooting that night. Trailing by 18 points in the third quarter, Bryant took it upon himself to pull his team to within striking distance by scoring 55 second-half points. Deafening cheers of “MVP!” turned the Staples Center into what we could guess was like an imaginary scene dreamed up by a young Kobe on his parents’ driveway.
Following the US Men’s Olympic Basketball team’s third-place finish at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, managing director Jerry Colangelo reached out to Kobe to gauge his interest in becoming a member of the ball club for the 2008 Olympics. Bryant, who hadn’t previously been a part of Team USA basketball, was more than happy to oblige. A well rounded version of himself at this stage in his career, Kobe sought to bring the kind of respectability and accountability to USA basketball that members of the “Dream Team” had established in 1992. Bryant’s tireless work ethic, which often involved getting grueling workouts in before 6am, became infectious. In short order, Kobe led the 2008 and 2012 USA Men’s Olympic basketball teams to Gold Medal victories. His role as an elder statesman of sorts would be a precursor to his final few years with the Lakers.
Back-to-Back NBA Championships in 2009 & 2010
The aughts were highlighted by a series of peaks and valleys in the career of Kobe Bryant. Following the success of the “Three Peat” Lakers teams at the beginning of the decade, the middle of the 2000s saw Bryant’s very public falling out with longtime friend and teammate Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers hit a snag in 2004 and 2005, though bounced back behind Kobe’s guidance to reclaim a spot in the upper echelons of the NBA by 2008. Following a crafty trade with the Memphis Grizzlies that netted Pau Gasol in 2008, the Lakers won another NBA Championship in 2009. Without having to shoulder as much as the scoring load as he had in years’ past, Bryant paced himself through his fourteenth season with the Lakers in 2009-2010. The move paid dividends as the Lakers avenged their 2008 NBA Finals loss to the Boston Celtics by defeating the team in the 2010 Finals. For Bryant, it was his franchise-tying 5th NBA Championship. Moreover, winning back-to-back NBA Titles erased doubts as to whether Kobe needed Shaq to “win the big one.”